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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 202

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This is the grave of Enrico Fermi.

Born in 1901 in Rome to a prominent political family, Fermi showed an unusual aptitude for physics from a very young age and went to the University of Pisa where he received an advanced degree at the age of 20. As early as 1923, he became the first to note the untapped potential for nuclear energy in Einstein’s E = mc2 equation. He wrote, It does not seem possible, at least in the near future. to find a way to release these dreadful amounts of energy—which is all to the good because the first effect of an explosion of such a dreadful amount of energy would be to smash into smithereens the physicist who had the misfortune to find a way to do it.”

Well….

Fermi quickly rose to the top of the physics profession, traveled around Europe meeting the world’s most famous physicists, including Einstein, and got a job at Sapienza University in Rome, all the while producing many papers advancing the field. He was totally down with Mussolini at first and joined the Fascist Party in 1929. But he broke from Mussolini in 1938 when the race laws were issued because Fermi’s wife was Jewish.

I can’t get too much into Fermi’s advancements in physics because I simply don’t understand them. But he pioneered all sorts of cool stuff that I am sure you all can discuss in comments. He received the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics, still only 37 years old. This was for his work on nuclear particles that had made him famous. Said the Nobel Committee, it was for his “demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.”

He went to the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm with his family. But they did not return to Italy because of the race laws. Instead, they flew to the United States, where Fermi asked for permanent residency. While the U.S. was sadly letting in very few refugees from the growing specter of what became the Holocaust, as American politics were still dominated by the racism and anti-immigration politics of the 1920s, for someone like Fermi, it was an easy call. He had a lot to offer.

Columbia immediately hired Fermi. In the basement of a building there, on January 25, 1939, Fermi led a team that conducted the first nuclear fission test in the United States. Working with Leo Szilárd, an equally famous physicist, he began figuring out the idea of a first nuclear reactor. Fermi, now completely opposed to Mussolini and fearful of what Hitler would do with nuclear energy, sounded the alarm about the potential of a nuclear weapon in the hands of an enemy. It took awhile to get the government’s attention but the letter to FDR he helped write that Albert Einstein signed began the Manhattan Project. He led the team that put together the first nuclear reactor under the football stadium at the University of Chicago. It went critical on December 2, 1942 and the race to produce the first weapon was on. One of the key sites in developing this research was at what would become Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago and Fermi was placed in charge of this. He was all over the place during the war, personally inserting the first uranium slug into Hanford’s B Reactor designed to produce plutonium, attending the criticality moment for the X-10 Reactor at Oak Ridge, and joining Oppenheimer’s team at Los Alamos in 1944. He observed the Trinity explosion in New Mexico and helped choose the targets for the use of atomic weapons on Japan.

After the war, Fermi avoided the world government of atomic energy movement that motivated a lot of scientists, largely because he didn’t think it would help stop wars. He moved back to the University of Chicago in late 1945 and served on the advisory committee for the Atomic Energy Commission, which replaced the Manhattan Project in 1947. He opposed the creation of the hydrogen bomb, even after the Soviets tested their first weapon in 1949, shocking the world. This was more because he didn’t believe it as a realistic development than a moral opposition and he still worked a bit on it as it went forward. He also continued with his own research and developing the next generation of leading physicists. He began to grow pessimistic toward the end of his life about the choices humans would make with nuclear technology, which given our current president is a good thing to be pessimistic about. Unfortunately, the end of his life was too short. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died in 1954, only 53 years old.

Enrico Fermi is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

Previous graves are listed here. You can support the travel required for this series by donating here.

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